Undergraduate English majors often treasure the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. The film is set in the 1950s at Welton Academy, a boarding school that is beautiful but strict in an old-fashioned way; it aims more at placing its graduates in the Ivy League than developing their imaginative capacities.
The film centers on the efforts of an unconventional young teacher named Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, who transforms his English class from an exercise in cultural duty to a whirlwind tour of self-discovery. In one memorable class on Walt Whitman, Mr. Keating coerces a painfully shy student into "sounding his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world."
Sadly, Mr. Keating's efforts at liberating his students result in the suicide of a boy whose father insists that he abandon his love of acting to study medicine at Harvard. In the aftermath, Mr. Keating is forced to leave Welton, but not before his students stand on their desks in a gesture of support that foreshadows the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Dead Poets Society is old enough now for many professors to have been inspired by it as undergraduates. I remember seeing it during my junior year, and I thought, at that time, that the film encapsulated many of the romantic feelings that led me to become an English major the year before.
It's not that I admired Mr. Keating entirely. He had some stirring moments, such as when he shows his students photographs of long-dead Weltonians while discussing Robert Herrick's poem, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
Mr. Keating urges his boys to "seize the day." It's a beautiful scene, tinged with the melancholy of late adolescence.
But most of Mr. Keating's teaching is more like Williams' improvisational comedy than something that might work in a real classroom with stipulated outcomes. Telling students to tear pages out of their textbooks seems excessive and maybe even a little authoritarian. Today the teacher is a big-hearted liberal; tomorrow he is a demagogue. Today we are tearing out pages; tomorrow we are burning books.
I might have been attracted to a teacher like Mr. Keating at times, but my rational side would have agreed with his older colleague, Mr. McAllister, who laments, "You take a big risk encouraging your students to be artists, John. When they realize they're not all Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they'll hate you for it."
Let me decide for myself whether I want to rip pages out of my textbook or sound my barbaric yawp if you don't mind, Mr. Keating. Maybe I want to learn how to diagram a sentence and write a research paper. Maybe I don't want to be your idealized version of Walt Whitman, someone who is, nevertheless, easily manipulated for ideological purposes. Maybe I want to be an accountant, and I don't regard that as wasting my life, thank you very much. Maybe there is something valuable in the traditions of Welton that might be worth protecting from all the freedom that you advocate.
Mr. Keating was charismatic, no doubt about that. But the attractions of English, for me, had less to do with the vision of Mr. Keating than the durability of the institution that hired him.
There was a strong material component to English; it wasn't just about words or ideas. I associated literature with the feelings of fall -- the vague sadness of the end of summer, the crisp air, sweaters and wood smoke, stained glass and gothic architecture, and the optimism that comes with new books and stationery. All of those associations took place in an institutional setting apart from teachers, though teachers were necessary because they made demands and offered their experience.
My college education was a lot like the one depicted at Welton Academy -- or at least I could fantasize it as such. But I had the pleasure of choosing elements from the Keatings and McAllisters I met without being forced to take sides in the eternal struggle between tradition and change, community and self, reason and imagination.
In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: "So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?" I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.
They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:
Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
Feelings of alienation from one's peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one's special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
A transference of spiritual longings -- perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing -- toward more secular literary forms that inspired "transcendence."
A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.
Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. They reflected the drive toward imaginative freedom expressed by Mr. Keating, but they also reflected a deep traditionalism that is equally crucial to English as a discipline. Both impulses, however, are intractably emotional, irrational, and romantic.
Not one student said I am studying English "because I want to make a lot of money" or "because my parents made me."
English is, almost always, a freely chosen major -- and sometimes it is chosen in spite of parental and material resistance. English is a rebellious major, even as it draws on a tradition deeper than the contemporary American dream of success.
It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects.
When I asked about that, one said, "If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology." English is, among my undergraduates at least, one of the last refuges of the classical notion of a liberal-arts education.
It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school.
They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.
For me, it's strange and wonderful, after receiving tenure, to be able to rediscover my undergraduate self, to nurture in my students the motives that drew me to graduate school in the first place.
The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.
It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place -- or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional, you must say goodbye to Mr. Keating.
You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways, probably in secret, the way some people sing along with Barry Manilow in their cars.
In the final minute of the class, one of my students asked exactly the right question: "If you had the chance, Professor Benton, would you do it all over again? Would you still become an English professor?"
I thought for a while and said, "Yes, I would, if I could know that it would turn out this way."